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The British American, No. 5



Williamsburg, Virginia, June 30, 1774.

Friends, Fellow-citizens, and Countrymen:

It is not my intention to inflame your minds by pointing out the many privileges you have already lost, but to rouse you to a steady opposition to the measures now pursuing to deprive you of what few still remain. I shall, therefore, instead of entering minutely into every branch of the old English Constitution, whose sole object is, or rather was, political liberty, confine myself to that part of it which relates to legislation and taxation only. But in order to be thoroughly understood, it will be necessary to premise, that in ancient times, besides the palaces for the residence, there were particular funds and lands set apart, whose yearly profits supplied the domestic expenses and supported the splendour of the Kings of England. These were called the ancient demesne of the Crown, and were not only abundantly sufficient to answer those purposes, but sometimes enabled our Monarchs to repel, at their own private expense, any sudden or unforeseen hostile attacks upon the Kingdom. Thus the great Queen Elizabeth, (under whose reign our ancestors first emigrated,) instead of asking money of her Parliament, generally demanded reimbursement only for what she had actually advanced for the general good. And even these she often generously remitted to her subjects.

The Legislature of England consisted of three distinct branches. The first was the Monarch, whose ample hereditary revenues, enabling him to support the dignity of his rank, removed all temptation to oppress either of the other two, because, nobly provided for himself, he was under no necessity of asking any supplies from his Parliament but such as were necessary for the general good of the whole community. Independent of any power on earth for the support of himself and family, he was equally above the temptation of being corrupted himself, or of endeavouring to corrupt the Parliament.

The second consisted of the House of Lords, a body of men who, on account of their great wealth or merit, and generally both, were ennobled by the Monarch, and their titles and power, when once created, were hereditary, they were not only independent but were equally interested in preserving the legal prerogatives of the Crown, and the just privileges of the People: the prerogatives of the Crown, because as they derived their very existence from the Monarch, if his legal power was annihilated, theirs must necessarily be extinguished with it, as the stream will cease to flow when the fountain from whence it sprung is dried up. As hereditary guardians of the Realm it was equally their interest to preserve the privileges of the people, because however distinguished by rank or title, they themselves, as part of the community, must finally feel any oppression exercised by the Sovereign over their fellow-subjects.

The third branch of the Legislature consisted of the People at large, in which every native had a right to vote, for in those days it was thought unreasonable that the life, liberty, or property of a freeman should be affected by any law which he did not consent to, or at least which he had not a right to oppose.

But these tumultuous assemblies of the People being found from experience not only inconvenient but absolutely impracticable, as a majority of the whole Kingdom could never meet at any one place to deliberate upon the affairs of the Kingdom, it became customary for the inhabitants


of different counties and large cities and towns to delegate the wisest of their neighbours to represent them in the Legislature, and to speak the sentiments of their electors on the general concerns of the Kingdom. These formed the House of Commons. In process of time this right of delegation was confined to those who had a freehold in lands, of a particular value, because, as I have observed in a former letter, the owners of the soil were not only supposed to be the best judges of what was for the benefit of the Kingdom, but because they were less liable to be corrupted to prejudice a country in which they themselves were permanently interested.

Happy had it been for England that this wise regulation had never been altered; and happier still if the right for voting for Representatives had been confined to freeholders of counties only, and not extended to towns and corporations, which, however populous and opulent formerly, are now scarce the shadow of what they were.

But to return to my subject.

The Monarch was vested with the power of convening the other two bodies of the Legislature, of laying before them the state of the Kingdom with respect to foreign alliances, and of recommending to their consideration all things which he judged for the benefit of the Nation; and after having done this he retired and left them to deliberate and to form what resolutions they pleased, either upon the plans thus recommended or upon any others which they thought proper; and so far as related to legislation only, the Lords and Commons had an equal right of proposing and of altering and amending resolutions proposed by each other. The King had no power of altering and amending, but, by withholding his assent, might reject any resolution of the other two branches altogether.

To have invested him with a power of altering would have been dangerous to liberty; because, of all laws respecting the subject, the Lords, who were the representatives of the higher, and the Commons, who represented the lower ranks of the people, were the most proper judges, because they would share in the advantages and disadvantages of those laws. But as the King might receive the emoluments, but could not share in the inconveniences, if he had been allowed to have interfered in altering and amending such, the Nation might have been cruelly oppressed, for as all honours flowed from the Crown, a desire of acquiring those honours might have induced the Commons. Hope of enlarging those already conferred might have influenced the Lords to have shown such complaisance to the alterations of the Crown as would have been consistent with the good of the community. Wisdom, as well as delicacy, therefore, excluded the temptation. The King' s right of rejecting altogether was a sufficient barrier against all encroachments on the rights of the Sovereign, since no resolutions had the force of laws till they received the concurrence of a majority of the Lords and Commons, and were approved of, and assented to, by the King.

Taxation was fixed upon a very different foundation. The House of Commons claimed and exercised the sole right of proposing taxes, of pointing out the ways and means, of levying supplies, and of framing the bills by the authority of which they were to be collected; and so extremely jealous were they of this privilege that they never would suffer either of the other branches of the Legislature to make the smallest alteration, either in the form or substance of a Supply Bill.

This exclusive privilege was founded upon very just grounds. The reasons I have already given in treating of legislation, are doubly cogent to restrain the King (who was to apply, or rather expend, the money raised,) from exercising any other power over a Money Bill than that of rejecting; to which may be added another, that the Representatives of a people must ever be more capable than their Prince of judging of the abilities of their constituents, and of knowing how much, and what species of their property they can spare to preserve the remainder. Nor are there wanting many and just reasons to exclude the Lords from interfering with this right exercised by the Commons. In the first place, the whole wealth of a Nation arises from the farmer, the grazier, the mechanick, and the trader; and as they are the very creators of money they ought to have the publick disposition of it, because they know its value, and have experienced the difficulty with which it is acquired.


On the other hand, the Lords possessed of immense wealth, transmitted to them by their ancestors, and born (if I may be allowed the expression) with silver spoons in their mouths, might be lavish of the national treasures, without duly considering with what anxiety, difficulties, and dangers the bulk of the people have acquired the small share of it they possess. Again, a supply granted to the Crown, which, with respect to the enormous fortunes of the nobility, would scarce deserve the name of liberality, might amount almost to a confiscation of the estates of the lower ranks of the people, and reduce thousands of their fellow-subjects to distress, poverty, and ruin. On the other hand, it is difficult to suppose that the Representatives of the labouring or trading part of the Nation, would, or could, be so extravagant in their supplies as to injure the estates of the nobility; and if such an unnatural case could exist, the House of Lords, by exercising their right of rejecting, would effectually ward off the blow. But if they had a power of even altering a Money Bill, they might model it in such a manner as to exonerate, in a great measure, their own estates, and lay the whole burthen upon the Commons, or at least it would be a constant source of feuds and dissensions between the two Houses, which would offer, to an enterprising Monarch, such opportunities of ingratiating himself occasionally with each as might endanger the Constitution.

From this state of the English Constitution it is obvious to the most common observer, that if any one of its branches encroached upon the rights of another, it became the interest of the other two to unite in repelling the aggressor, since if either branches are annihilated, or even weakened, the other must necessarily fall a prey to the victor. If the Commons attacked the Lords, the Crown necessarily interposed its authority to support the injured rights of the nobility; for, if they succeeded in destroying the rights of the nobility, such an acquisition of power as would then devolve on them, would soon enable them to weaken, if not destroy, the prerogatives of the Crown. If the Lords encroached upon the privileges of the Commons, our history afforded top many instances of the dreadful consequences of the overgrown power of the Barons to suffer the King to be an idle spectator whilst his nobles, by crushing the Commons, would arrogate to themselves the power of petty Princes, and endanger the safety of the Kingdom with internal commotions. If the King attacked the privileges of either of the other branches, or either of the others encroached upon the prerogatives of the Crown, the third branch was too much interested in the dispute to stand neuter, but readily assisted the injured party, sensible that the only method of preserving the true equilibrium of Government was to suffer neither branch to oppress or even weaken the other.


Thus constituted, thus mutually interested, to support each other, the King, Lords, and Commons of England, formed the wisest system of legislation that ever did, or perhaps ever will, exist; for the three favourite forms of Government, viz: Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, possessed of their distinct powers, checked, tempered, and improved each other. Nor was this excellence confined to forms alone. The characteristick principles of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, viz: honour, moderation, and virtue, were here so happily blended as totally to exclude fear, that despicable slave of despotism and arbitrary sway. The honour of Monarchy tempered the impetuosity of Democracy, the moderation of Aristocracy checked the ardent aspiring honour of Monarchy, and the virtue of Democracy restrained the one, impelled the other, and invigorated both. In short, no Constitution ever bid so fair for perpetual duration as that of England, and none ever half so well deserved it, since political liberty was its sole aim, and the general good of mankind the principal object of its attention. Had this happy state but recurred a little oftener to its first principles it would have remained the envy — the admiration of the whole world, and the delight of its most distant Dominions, till time shall be no more. But, alas! all human institutions are subject to decay; the very vitals of this amiable Constitution are wounded, the glorious fabrick already totters, and the time is approaching when it may be said of this beautiful Byzantium:

"That down the precipice of fate she goes,
And sinks in moments what in ages rose."

To trace the steps of this disorder, and point out what is likely to occasion this ever to be lamented misfortune, shall be the subject of my next.

I shall conclude this with a word of advice to my fellow-citizens of Virginia: Since my last the writs have issued for choosing your Representatives, returnable the 11th day of August next. Postpone your meeting in Williamsburg till that day, so short a delay will be attended with little inconvenience. If the Governour should then meet you in Assembly, you will have a constitutional opportunity of declaring the sentiments, and of vindicating the rights, of those you represent. But be not deceived. It is to be feared that the Governour will not, cannot, call the Assembly together till he receives letters from the Minister in England, and that it will be prorogued before the 11th of August. If it should, still let the new Representatives of the, people meet at that time; though they cannot as a legislative, yet they may as a collective body, declare the sentiments of their constituents, and it is necessary, not only that our Sovereign, but that the British Parliament should know those sentiments as soon as possible, otherwise an artful Minister may impose upon them, and induce them to believe you have actually submitted to a measure which I am convinced you never will submit to, because you ought not.



* I have read other arguments against the House of Lords exercising a right of altering Money Bills, but, I confess, they were not to me so convincing as the above. For instance, one was, that the wealth of the Lords compared to that of the Commons of England, was but as a drop of water to the Ocean. Suppose this to be true, (though, by the by, it is a very large drop, and which, by their intermarriages with the rich heiresses of the Commons, is constantly increasing,) yet a single drop, when incorporated with, becomes as much a part of the Ocean as any other drop, and by the same parity of reasoning, the whole Ocean might drop by drop be excluded till it ceased to be even a rivulet. I am induced to make this remark from having read a similar argument in a late pamphlet of a Reverend author, who, after observing that each member of the House of Commons, when chosen, becomes the Representative of the whole Kingdom, he has the following note: "Surely the Nation might have expelled Mr˙ Wilkes, or have struck his name out of the list of the Committee, had it been assembled, or had it thought proper so to do. What then should hinder the Deputies of the Nation from doing the same thing? And which ought to prevail in this case, the Nation in general or the County of Middlesex?" Let it he observed that if the whole body of the people had been assembled upon the National Councils, no such Committee could have existed; the case thus supposed is, therefore, a nonentity. But admitting it otherwise, even a Committee of the House of Commons cannot exclude any member of that Committee, but must apply to the House who constituted them a Committee to make such exclusion. That the House of Commons have a right, by expelling any member, to appeal to the people who sent him whether such member is unworthy to represent them, there can be no doubt, but if, after such an appeal, the people re-elect him, they are surely bound to receive him. In such an Assembly as the Reverend author speaks of, there can be no doubt but a majority of the whole Kingdom may exclude the inhabitants of the County of Middlesex from any share in the National Councils, but from that instant they cannot exercise a constitutional right, either of legislation or taxation, over the County of Middlesex; and just so great a power as a majority of the Nation can exercise over the inhabitants of a single county, a majority of the Representatives of the Nation may exercise over the Representatives of a single county. But the consequence must be the same in both cases.